Cannes Film Festival jury members Will Smith and Fan Bingbing pose for the paparazzi on the red carpet in the French resort town on May 24. Photo: AFP
Cannes Film Festival jury members Will Smith and Fan Bingbing pose for the paparazzi on the red carpet in the French resort town on May 24. Photo: AFP

Like an advancing army in some sweeping historical epic, the world’s major film studios are massing at the frontier of China’s movie market, desperate to conquer the Middle Kingdom.

At the Cannes Film Festival, it’s difficult to find a producer who isn’t interested in a slice of the Chinese box office, set to be the globe’s most valuable by 2019.

With a burgeoning middle class among its 1.3 billion population, China already has the most movie screens – with new ones popping up at a dizzying rate of 27 per day last year, according to analysts IHS Markit.

A poster for The Great Wall.
Matt Damon (center, left) with Jing Tian (center, right) star in The Great Wall.

And while ticket sales have dipped slightly, the potential profits from a smash hit in China are bigger than ever.

The latest Fast and Furious film has earned more in China than in the US and the country is in the grip of a craze for the Indian film Dangal, about a father who wants his daughters to become professional wrestlers.

“Chinese people have more money in their pocket and they want to pay for entertainment, to see a different life through cinema,” said Lin Jing, producer of the only Chinese film showing in the official selection at Cannes, Walking Past the Future.

Walking Past the Future, starring Yang Zishan by director Li Ruijun. Photo: Cannes
Walking Past the Future, starring Yang Zishan by director Li Ruijun.

Tie-ups have come thick and fast at the festival, with Beijing-based Jetsen taking a stake in the thriller American Made starring Tom Cruise, and a deal announced to sell the children’s animation franchise Moomins for Chinese release.

But there’s a snag: the Communist Party keeps tight limits on foreign films imported for screening in China, with the annual limit currently set at 34.

Rumors have swirled for months that Beijing is planning to expand the quota. But Jerome Paillard, director of the Cannes Film Market – a deal-making shop that runs parallel to the main festival – said Hollywood should wait before cracking open the champagne.

Spending clampdown?

It remains to be seen whether Beijing “really has a strategic will to open up,” Paillard told AFP, adding: “We don’t feel for the moment that commercial relations in cinema have really taken off.”

A Cannes gathering between Western producers and companies such as Jackie Chan’s Sparkle Roll was nevertheless packed, with filmmakers on both sides eager to work together.

Actress Tian Jing attends the Los Angeles premiere of Warner Bros "Kong: Skull Island" on March 8, 2017. Photo: Agence France-Presse.
Jing Tian is the darling of many Wanda productions. Photo: Agence France-Presse

Beijing’s growing economic might has meant a flow of money going both ways. Chinese entertainment groups have made a string of high-profile investments in Hollywood in recent years, with the Wanda conglomerate paying a record-breaking US$3.5 billion for Legendary Pictures, the maker of Godzilla, and Alibaba billionaire Jack Ma buying a stake in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners.

In Cannes, there’s speculation that the big spending may have come to a halt due to a Chinese clampdown on overseas investments, which reportedly led Wanda to drop its US$1 billion bid for the operator of the Golden Globe awards in March.

And while there’s ample enthusiasm on both sides for co-productions –  which under certain circumstances are able to dodge China’s foreign film quotas – producers are also asking why so many such projects have failed.

The Great Wall starring Matt Damon, a fantasy epic billed as heralding a bright new era of big-budget co-productions, was an epic flop in both countries last year, leading many to conclude it made a fatal error in trying to appeal to audiences in both East and West.

‘Golden years’

“The ways Chinese tell stories and the way Westerners tell stories is so different,” said Yu-Fai Suen, the Hong Kong-born managing director of Britain’s Pinewood Pictures.

Western movie-goers want a clear story arc, he said, while in China “they’re in your face more, they’re less subtle.”

Cultural differences and the language barrier also create problems.

Steven Spielberg, film director and chairman of Amblin Partners and Jack Ma, chairman and chief executive of Alibaba Group at an event to announce their movie company partnership in China in October, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Shirley Feng
Steven Spielberg and Jack Ma announce their film company partnership in October 2016. Photo: Reuters

“To be very frank, most producers I know – American and Chinese – after one experience in co-production, will say, ‘Forget it, it’s a nightmare,’” said Yang Ying, director of Movie View, a Chinese magazine and PR agency.

But that hasn’t discouraged the more determined film executives in Cannes eyeing profits in the Middle Kingdom, some of whom have learned from previous flops.

And for Chinese filmmakers at the world’s biggest festival, there’s hope that their country’s rise to Asian powerhouse will spark more interest in the West for movies reflecting contemporary life in China, beyond the kung fu and action stereotypes.

“There are a lot of sides to life in China,” said producer Lin Jing.

“These are going to be golden years for the Chinese cinema industry, the next 10 or 20 years,” she predicted.

Agence France Presse